Cornell experts advocate for ag diversity, food security
By James Dean
Only about 1% of New York state’s nearly 58,000 farm owners identify as Hispanic or Latinx, according to the Census of Agriculture, despite more than 80,000 such employees providing an essential backbone to the state’s farm sector.
“They’re highly experienced, have managed large farms, have all sorts of skills, and most plan to spend a lifetime in agriculture,” Anu Rangarajan, director of the Cornell Small Farms Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, testified during a recent New York State Senate hearing. “And yet few have transitioned to farm ownership.”
Rangarajan was one of a group of Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) and faculty experts who provided insights during the April 13 hearing focused on opportunities to diversify agriculture and address food justice. The hearing was hosted jointly by the Committees on Agriculture, Labor and Social Services.
“We can’t address food insecurity without looking at our food systems as a whole,” said Sen. Michelle Hinchey ’09, chair of the agriculture committee. “We need to work to make sure that our agriculture sector is as diverse as the people it’s feeding.”
Compared with the roughly 600 Hispanic or Latinx farm owners, the state counts just 139 who are Black, with less than 2% overall identifying as people of color, the hearing highlighted.
In the opening panel, Rangarajan expressed appreciation for first-time state support in 2021-22 for Cornell’s Equitable Farm Futures Initiative, which will expand efforts to foster diversity in the farming community. Those efforts include the Labor Ready project’s master class program, which helps Spanish-speaking farmers and employees learn English and strengthen management and financial skills.
Silvia Rios Reyes, a graduate of the program, told senators the master class had helped her manage the books and employees at her family’s apple orchard in Albion, in Orleans County.
“It’s a very good opportunity,” Reyes said. “I learned a lot.”
Mario Miranda Sazo, fruit extension specialist with CCE’s Lake Ontario Fruit Program, said more are ready to follow Reyes’ example, potentially finding opportunities when older New York farmers retire without children who want to take over the business.
“But they need the training,” Miranda Sazo said. “They need the same kind of training that we have been providing to the commercial fruit growers through the traditional Cornell Cooperative Extension programming.”
The master classes are just one example, Rangarajan said, of how the state must pivot to meet the unique needs of diverse farmers. “If we are truly committed to an agriculture that upholds diversity as a core value,” she said, “a systemic change is needed in how we think about agricultural development.”
In the panels that followed, many witnesses endorsed solutions for achieving racial equity in agriculture proposed by Black Farmers United of New York State, the Black Farmer Fund and Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust.
Roger Figueroa, assistant professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, in the College of Human Ecology, framed food insecurity as a global issue exacerbated by the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected minority populations.
Figueroa said 1 in 5 Black and Hispanic households with children is food insecure or food insufficient, and has faced additional barriers during the pandemic due to lost jobs, reduced access to school meals and the challenges of serving as essential workers. “It’s time to think about in what ways we can really make sustainable changes,” he said.
David Just, the Susan Eckert Lynch Professor of Science and Business in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, discussed findings from a recent survey of food banks, which were flooded with new demand during the pandemic.
Average food distribution by weight increased by 25%, he said, but it wasn’t always easy to predict where the most acute needs would be.
Just proposed strategies that might help governments and food assistance providers better predict shortages, including mining internet search data; tracking the intent of businesses to lay off workers or reduce their hours; tracking 211 calls and other government contacts; partnering with food banks; and developing an app similar to COVID Alert NY, used for contact tracing.
“Future food security emergencies could be addressed more rapidly, more effectively and more efficiently,” Just said, “if we were able to implement a comprehensive system to track food insecurity indicators at a local level, and in real time.”
Judson Reid ’97, a specialist with CCE’s Cornell Vegetable Program, discussed how urban and rural farming could help refugees settle and integrate in the state, and produce culturally relevant foods that might otherwise not be available to their communities.
Reid said access to professional translators would help CCE support such programs, citing the example of an urban farm run by Journey’s End Refugee Services in Buffalo, where farmers have come from countries including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nepal. “Funding to support the presence of proficient translators could make farming more inclusive in New York state,” he said.
Dean Koyanagi ’90 and Nina Saeli, veterans project associates with Cornell Small Farms, discussed opportunities for veterans – who are becoming increasingly diverse – to transition to farming. Providing veterans pathways to agriculture requires a variety of approaches, said Koyanagi, a former Marine, citing as one example workshops the Farm Ops project conducted with Rise and Root Farm in Orange County that planted crops destined for local food banks.
Said Saeli, a retired Army major: “We tell them, ‘You joined the military to serve your country, but you can become a farmer to serve your community.’”
The senators thanked the panelists for helping them begin to craft policies that could make agriculture more diverse and help achieve greater food security in the state.
“You’ve given us a lot of work to do,” said Sen. Roxanne Persaud, chair of the social services committee. “And we are committed to doing the work that you’ve charged us with doing.”